History & Culture

Celebrating Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda  

Great men are seldom born. It is our good fortune that in one decade of the 19th century, three great men were born in India: Swami Vivekananda on January 12, 1863, Rabindranath Tagore on May 4, 1861, and Mahatma Gandhi on October 2, 1869. Each became a formidable figure in his sphere of work. Swami Vivekananda was the first leader among these three outstanding persons to make a major impact on the Indian consciousness both in his time and thereafter.

Narendranath Dutt was born into a Hindu family in Kolkata. During his short life span of 39 years he gave new meaning to the Hindu philosophy of tolerance. It was he who built the Ramakrishna Order to propagate the values of the Vedanta philosophy and to work for the spread of quality education and health care throughout the length and breadth of India.

The contribution of Swami Vivekananda needs to be viewed in three inter-related perspectives. First, he brought religion to the centre-stage and gave a new meaning to it. Secondly, he stressed the need for harmony among faiths. Thirdly , his teachings continue to be of relevance.

A contemporary of Swami Vivekananda, the famous German thinker Friedrich Neitzsche (1844-1900) declared the ‘death of God.' It was felt that science and rationality were guiding human affairs more decisively than religions. This was not acceptable to Swami Vivekananda and he went on to give a new meaning to religion.

Swami Vivekananda maintained that service to God should mean service to the poor. He coined a new word Daridra Narayana – ‘God in the poor and the lowly'- as a religious axiom. Daridra-Narayana brought in an element of the sense of duty which was enjoined on men and women to serve the poor if they wanted to serve God.

His philosophy

Like the Buddha, Swami Vivekananda highlighted the role of rationality in human conduct. He believed that whatever we do must be justified and supported by reason. Man must learn to live with a religion which commends itself to intellectual conscience and to the spirit of rationality. Any religion that divides man from man, or supports privileges, exploitation, and wars, cannot commend itself.

Swami Vivekananda raised service of the poor to the level of worship, and at that level, harmony among different faiths automatically became a pre-condition. Such an environment demands reconciliation among human beings.

Swamiji's earnest prayer was, “May I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries, so that I may worship, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species.”

Today it is no longer possible to live an isolated life. People of different faiths live side by side. It is therefore, necessary to understand each other: their needs and aspirations, faiths and practices. A close examination of Swamiji's teachings and practices reveals that he thought ahead of his time. His ideas emphasising dialogue among faiths and justification for plurality of faiths and belief patterns are of great relevance in today's strife-torn world.

The historic address

Swami Vivekananda explained that the Vedanta philosophy was not Brahmanic or Buddhist, Christian or Muslim, but the sum total of all these. In his historic address to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda clarified:

The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, or a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.

Swamiji also saw this relevant in the Indian context. The Hindu conception has been what was described by Paramahansa Ramakrishna in the form of an aphorism: Jato mat, tato path, that is, ‘As many opinions, so many ways.' Swamiji greatly valued plurality of approach in human affairs and spoke against uniformity.

Swamiji was in favour of harmony among religious beliefs and against one religion for all. He records:

The greatest misfortune to befall the world would be if all mankind were to recognise and accept but one religion, one universal form of worship, one standard of morality. This would be the death-blow to all religious and spiritual progress.

There are two aspects of Swamiji's teachings and practice which are of particular relevance to India and the world today.

Swami Vivekananda was one of the great founders of the national freedom movement of India. Persons such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda provided a way of life to the people not only in regard to their spiritual uplift but also in their approach towards society at large.

Indian democracy is facing a serious challenge in view of our inability to keep public servants away from temptations. The Ramakrishna Order set up by Swamiji since its inception has taken care of its members in a manner that they continue to be symbols of integrity and devotion to duty. How has this been accomplished? The Order takes care of every member's food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare needs. There is considerable equality in treatment in respect of food, clothing and healthcare provisions. It motivates its personnel through training and idealism. The time has come for political parties to draw appropriate lessons from the Ramakrishna Order.

We are living in a world which is marked by hatred and violence, terrorism and suicide squads. Terrorists are using religious slogans to justify their evil deeds. There are many people who believe in the dictum: “My god is superior to yours.”

Swami Vivekananda rightly declared in the Parliament of Religions: “If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not Fight,' ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,' ‘ Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”

Swami Vivekananda was handsome in looks, thought and deeds. Such a combination of beauty is rarely seen in an individual. His short span of life and monumental deeds constitute a rare example of an individual's earnestness and endeavour.

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, let us focus on and work towards making India a strong nation, and an equitable society and the world a better place to live in.

(The author, currently the Governor of Sikkim, is a distinguished scholar, thinker and public servant.) Bahudhâ and the Post-9/11 World

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